Last week, Apple made headlines with iBooks 2.0 and
iBooks Author, the company’s next big moves into textbooks and self-publishing. When players
like Apple go wading into the marketplace with game-changing announcements,
there’s a tendency to believe that all the outstanding uncertainties have been
But in the fast-evolving e-book space, that’s far from true. Apple,
Amazon, Google, and the various corporate content owners are huge and
influential, but when they are all battling each other over fundamentals of the
market, it’s consumers, creators, and publishers who have control.
The reason for this new flurry of activity is because the
e-book market has moved into a new stage.
The low-hanging fruit of best-sellers, genre fiction, and perennial classics
have been harvested by Amazon and the Kindle-toting masses. The arrival of
color tablets with bigger displays and more powerful processors has opened a
new frontier for designed and illustrated books, including textbooks,
technical manuals, cookbooks, photography, and fine-art books, magazines,
graphic novels, and comics. The scramble for this new and potentially lucrative
market is on, and it has attracted a wide range of players looking to cash in.
Because so much is still unsettled in this market,
everything is up for grabs. Here is a list of some of the issues being hashed
out in public as Apple, Amazon, publishers, distributors, established
technology companies, startups, educational institutions, individual content
creators, and advertisers all try to stake their claim.
formats or proprietary, protected files? This may seem like a technical issue,
but the stakes are huge. Industry-standard files and formats are portable
across platforms and devices, but proprietary files are only readable using the
distributor’s application (or, sometimes, the distributor’s device). With standard
formats, publishers and content creators can offer the same file through many
distribution channels, and customers can choose where to download based on
factors like price and brand ambiance. But when files are locked to an application
context, customers and publishers alike get locked to the platform, giving
leverage to the distributor. That’s obviously better business for the Apples
and Amazons of the world, which is why Apple is quietly
tweaking the EPUB standard in its iBook 2.0 strategy.
Android or iOS?
This distinction is most obvious to consumers trying to choose between an iPad,
a Kindle Fire, and the various other Android-powered tablets on the market, and
generally revolves around things like performance, user experience, and
application availability more than content. But the platform battle conceals a
battle of business models. Apple’s content strategy is meant to drive sales of
its lucrative, high-margin hardware, whereas Android is a much more oblique
attempt by Google to push its revenue-generating search technology onto new
classes of devices. The two companies’ vastly different objectives may soon
lead to a divergence in both their approach and their commitment to e-book
content. Microsoft may soon be part of this conversation as well.
Cloud-hosted files or
local storage? This basically comes down to “who owns the bits?” When consumers
buy MP3s online, those files typically reside on the local system, where they
can be copied to an iPhone, burned onto a CD, backed up, renamed, and so on. But
when people buy comics from an online distributor like ComiXology, the content
is hosted on the cloud and the end user license agreement (EULA) only grants
the consumer the right to view, not own, the files. This is in many ways more
convenient, since the licensed user can view their titles across multiple
platforms and devices without having to synchronize or copy files from one
place to another. But if ownership is restricted, shouldn’t that affect
pricing? Also, cloud-based models tilt the market toward big,
confidence-inspiring players. Why would users trust cloud-based content providers
who could vanish overnight–with their paid content–if business or
regulatory conditions change?
Standalone apps or “Newsstand”?
From an architectural standpoint, there’s no reason why every magazine, textbook, comic, and e-book couldn’t be its own app, built on a custom platform with
its own space on the device desktop. But as a practical matter, it’s more
convenient to have content aggregated into libraries and available through a
consistent application context and user experience. This dichotomy is reflected
in the digital comics landscape, where periodical comics from multiple
publishers are mostly through distributors like ComiXology, Graphicly, and
iVerse, while graphic novels are often built as standalone apps or through
publisher-specific applications. Which model prevails depends on whether consumers prefer the convenience of a single environment or the choices inherent in a diversity of technologies.
terms or restrictive EULA? Digital publishing is a huge boon for
independent authors and adventurous readers. Over the past year, we’ve seen
self-published e-books and comics top the Kindle best-seller lists as Amazon
rolled out its online publishing initiatives. Last week Graphicly
made a very public bid for cartoonists to self-publish on their platform.
But when Apple included authoring tools in its iBook 2.0 announcement, the
EULA contained a bunch of restrictive language reserving Apple’s right to
not only reject submissions to its store, but also to prevent authors from
selling rejected titles anywhere. As the market consolidates, will digital
distributors reconstruct the barriers to entry and unfavorable business terms
for authors that they eliminate by doing away with traditional publishers?
Format integrity or
media evolution? Digital distribution famously represents the convergence
of all media (text, graphics, audio, video, interactive) on a single platform,
freeing books from the tyranny of ink and paper. This of course opens up new
ways to make content more timely, collaborative, and compelling, which is part
of what makes Apple’s foray into textbooks so transformative. It also begs the
question of whether there is any value to maintaining the integrity of the print
medium, with its linearity, static design, and reliance on 26 characters in
various permutations to create mental rather than literal images. That is
perhaps the greatest uncertainty of all, and one which awaits everyone once the
business issues of digital publishing have been resolved.
Rob Salkowitz is author of Young World Rising: How Youth, Technology and Entrepreneurship
are Changing the World from the Bottom Up. His new
book, Comic-Con and the Business of Pop Culture, will be published by McGraw-Hill in 2012.
[Image: Flickr user travis_warren123]